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Tugboats help cut ice for season's early ships

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The Helen H. sits at its Superior dock in front of the Heritage Marine tugs Edward H. and Nancy J. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 5
Heritage Marine owner Mike Ojard takes the tug Helen H. close to the Arthur M. Anderson while breaking ice by the laker on Friday. The 767-foot-long Anderson has been docked at CN Dock 6 since early 2017. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 5
The tug Helen H. backs up for another run while breaking ice from around the Arthur M. Anderson on Friday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 5
The Heritage Marine tug Helen H. breaks ice along the port side of the Arthur M. Anderson on Friday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com5 / 5

Ramming through ice at the end of Canadian National Dock 6 in Duluth, Mike Ojard pushed the Helen H. tugboat as far forward as its 3,900-horsepower locomotive engine would allow, then backed up, and went at it again.

The tug jolted to each side as it hit the ice, which split easily against its hull.

"You've got to understand that this is a contact sport," Ojard, 73, owner of Heritage Marine, said from the cabin of his tugboat.

"Our job is really to run into stuff," added Bob Hom, a Heritage Marine captain.

It helps the company added almost 14 tons of steel to the bow, thickening its hull to 1 ¾ inches.

"Count the number of dents in the side of a tugboat," Ojard said.

"That's why we got those huge tires on the side," Hom said. At the beginning of each shipping season, the Heritage Marine crew helps break ice, allowing the season to get an earlier start. While the U.S. Coast Guard opens main channels for ships, tugboats keep those channels from refreezing and break ice within slips and along docks.

When the ice melts, tugboat companies spend the rest of the season helping guide and transport ships within the harbor.

Freeing the Arthur M. Anderson

On a Friday morning in late March, the Heritage Marine crew was tasked with freeing the Arthur M. Anderson from ice.

The Anderson is set to return to service after a two-year-long layup and Heritage Marine is scheduled to pull the Anderson across the harbor late Tuesday morning to Fraser Shipyards for its necessary inspections and maintenance.

The 767-foot laker is best known for being one of the first two ships on the scene after the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a 1975 Lake Superior gale.

Although the Anderson has been docked at Canadian National Dock 6 in western Duluth since January 2017, Mitch Koslow, vice president of Key Lakes Inc., told the News Tribune Monday that the economy has improved since it entered layup and the amount of cargos booked by the company is high. The Anderson is part of Canadian National Railway's Great Lakes Fleet, which is operated by Key Lakes.

"It's all about commercial and market conditions," Koslow said. "Things have improved to the point where we can use (the Anderson) to meet the needs of our customers."

Until Monday, company officials would not comment on why the ship had entered layup.

But Koslow said that after the Anderson's 2016 shipping season "market conditions were soft" and its certificates were expiring, which meant it required a drydocking and five-year inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping.

"That's a large expenditure and the conditions didn't warrant that expense at the time," Koslow said.

But now, the company is willing to go through that process and make any of the necessary repairs for the Anderson to return to service.

Koslow did not have a specific timeline on when the ship might move cargo again.

The Anderson had been trailing the Fitzgerald through the Nov. 10, 1975 storm and received Capt. Ernest McSorley's final radio call before he and 28 others went down with the Fitzgerald: "We are holding our own."

As the Helen H. pressed up against the Anderson's hull to pivot last week, Hom reflected on the season and a half he spent sailing on the Great Lakes when he was a young man, part of which was spent alongside McSorley.

Hom said he remembered McSorley telling him as the Fitzgerald passed them, "I'd hate to be on the Fitzgerald in a big storm ... it's all worn out from years of overloading."

"He knew the boat was in bad shape," Hom said. "That was five years before it sank."

'I always wanted a tugboat'

Ojard didn't spend his career on a tugboat.

Instead, he worked as a welder, school teacher and owner of a transmission shop — skills that helped him refurbish and maintain the tugboats Heritage Marine acquired.

But Ojard, a Knife River native, grew up on the lake.

Whether it was fishing with family or tagging along to work with his father on the Edna G. — Two Harbor's famed tugboat that, now retired, sits on display in the harbor and is incorporated into the city's logo.

So when Ojard began buying tugboats in 2007 — some from as far away as Texas — and transporting them back to the Twin Ports, he had no idea at the time that would result in a business.

But since then, Heritage Marine has grown to a fleet of four tugs — three kept off Connors Point in Superior and another in Two Harbors.

Now, Ojard leads one of the two tug businesses in the Duluth-Superior harbor and has managed to bring tug service back to Two Harbors after over 35 years without it.

Why start a tugboat business in retirement?

"I always wanted a tugboat," Ojard said.

Jimmy Lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. He spent the summer of 2015 as an intern for the Duluth News Tribune and was hired full time in October 2017 as a reporter for the Weekly Observer. He also reported for the Lake County News-Chronicle in 2017-18. Lovrien grew up in Alexandria, Minn., but moved to Duluth in 2013 to attend The College of St. Scholastica. Lovrien graduated from St. Scholastica in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in English and history. He also spent a summer studying journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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